In this Monthly Risk Report for January 2019, KCL Geopolitical Risk Society’s Committee members and Staff Writers provide their personal insights into the greatest geopolitical risks the globe is likely to face in the coming year. From a return to Cold War style Great Power Conflict to Climate Change, from Cybersecurity to rising instability in Africa, 2019 is shaping up to be a year awash with dangerous crises across the globe as the world enters a new era of unprecedented tensions.
Viktor Sundman – Events Officer
Whether you believe it is back, or that it never went away in the first place, it is impossible to deny that great power competition is now a major feature of the international system. 2018 saw the beginning of the trade war between the US and China, continued maritime posturing in the Asia-Pacific, Russian use of chemical weapons on UK soil and continued Russian interference in Western democratic processes. These power struggles are all set to continue in 2019, and tensions between the world’s major powers may even escalate over the year.
When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most. Ask the Ukrainians, stuck in the middle between of Russian and European tensions, or the Syrians, victims of a polarised and deadlocked Security Council, or the Yemenis, caught in the crossfire of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The effects of great power competition reverberates throughout the international system, increasing tensions on every level and reduces the ability of international institutions to contain and manage crises. The post-cold war system, “the international liberal order”, relied on cooperation rather than competition for its functioning, and as competition increases, order falls into disorder.
While this trend is worrying, it should not be overblown. The level of great power competition has been increasing over the last decade, and although it may very well continue to escalate in 2019, we are very unlikely to see an armed conflict between the US and China, the demise of the United Nations, or a Russian invasion of the Baltics over the coming year. That being said, great power competition leads to increased tensions and volatility in the international arena, which will affect both markets and people.
Carla Tilster – Events Officer
Cyberattacks present a malicious risk to political and economic structures, particularly in the West, with viruses and malware threatening paralysing core systems that society needs to function. Not only do these attacks threaten physical infrastructure but they also threaten breaches of personal, classified or sensitive data such as the cyber breaches experienced at NASA in December 2018. Each year, and 2019 is expected to be no different, we put more data online. With this increased data comes the increased risk of major systems and information breaches. The risks of cyberattacks are all the more pertinent in 2019. This comes as Blackrock’s Geopolitical Risk Dashboard was updated to suggest that the likelihood of cyberattacks has increased greatly, as have the potential losses of such an attack.
Cyberespionage as a type of cyberattacks also represents a threat. For example, in recent months, suspicions about Huawei being used as a vehicle for Chinese spies have grown, leading us to question the motives of the Chinese government in its relationship with Chinese technology firms. These questions come after the Chinese were found to have compromised the secure data and systems of US companies using tiny electronic chips, that which Bloomberg extensively reported in October 2018. Despite cyberattacks and espionage not being new phenomena, increased global tensions, particularly between the USA and China and the UK and Russia, hint at a potential increase in cyberespionage to compromise national security and government information systems as a manifestation of these tensions in a new type of conflict.
Will Marshall – Editor-in-Chief
A decade ago, it was assumed that Great Power Conflict between the world’s superpowers had become a thing of the past, an antiquated relic of a bygone era. Looking at the world of today this could not appear anything further than the truth. On one hand the incessant rise of China has given produced an economic superpower, predicted to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy by 2030 at the latest which has only just begun to realise its potential to shape the international order. Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ Project, spanning dozens of states across the Eurasian landmass exemplifies Beijing’s immense ambitions. Meanwhile the Russian Bear, cowed and seemingly defanged since the end of the Cold War has seemingly returned to the scene of global power politics with a vengeance, as illustrated by Putin’s dabbling in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine not to mention Moscow’s more sinister attempts to destabilise the West.
Nowhere is this new era of power politics more evident than in the Arctic Circle, where rising temperatures and new technologies are opening up the High North to an unprecedented degree of human exploitation, and the inevitable antagonism that comes with it. A myriad of overlapping rivalries and undissolved disputes make the Arctic a geopolitical minefield. As the Polar Ice Cap recedes new shipping lanes, untapped natural resources and hazy territorial boundaries all represent potential sources of future tensions between the region’s competing powers. Whilst Moscow speeds ahead with an ambitious re-militarisation programme in the Polar Region, other stakeholders have not been inactive with Canada, Denmark, Norway and the US all ramping up investment in military and scientific infrastructure in the Arctic. Even China, which has no territorial claims within the Arctic Circle, has insisted Beijing play a key role in future Arctic governance after Xi Jinping inaugurated his ambitious plans for a ‘Polar Silk Road’, illustrated the enhanced geopolitical significance of the High North in the global chessboard of great power politics.
Whether the Arctic will ultimately be the source of the next great geopolitical crisis is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, what is certain is that as temperatures in the Polar Regions continue to rise, there is ample potential for tensions between the region’s stakeholders to reach boiling point. Whatever the outcome, the Arctic Circle is going to be the one to watch for policymakers as we enter 2019.
Aleksandra Kusnierkiewicz – GPRIS Staff Writer
2019 will be filled with political revelations across the European continent: the legislative elections in the European Parliament may settle the fiery and long-standing division between EU supporters and and its detractors. Anti-establishment forces have already shaken the political scene across the Western world: in 2016, the UK decided to leave the EU after four decades of membership; Donald Trump has entered the White House, raging on rhetoric of populism and xenophobia. Today, the populist governments of Salvini in Italy, Morawiecki in Poland and Orbán in Hungary form a strong buffer against a united European policy. Meanwhile, the political crisis in France fuels resentment to the EU establishment. The European Parliament may once again serve as a scene for national politics and stir further division within the bloc.
The upcoming elections of 2019 will have a direct influence on how the EU is governed for decades. The 28-nation Parliament assists in passing laws and approves the EU commission, which then in turn proposes legislation. If anti-European parties unite, they have a strong chance of becoming the largest or the second-largest bloc in the Parliament. A strong populist presence could complicate the efficacy of the EU and even block significant reforms. This means lesser capacity to cooperatively respond to unexpected crises, such as migration waves. Moreover, the organisation’s democracy may become polarized on simple pro- and anti-EU sentiments, which weakens its united stance. A lack of common policy and visible divisions mean less bargaining power on the international arena. It’s safe to claim that if the populist forces rise to gain significant power, the future of bloc itself is threatened.
Mahault Bernard – GPRIS Staff Writer
The United States’ recent decision to withdraw from the intermediate-range nuclear forces Treaty has raised numerous concerns concerning global security. This treaty, adopted in 1988, has formed one of the key pillars of the nuclear security framework since the end of the Cold War. However, since 2013 Russia has been suspected to be in violation with the treaty and has been recognized by NATO members as a key threat since July 2017. Moscow’s violation has been justified by the threat of the weapons tests done by China, North Korea and Iran. It does not want to comply with the treaty as long as these countries do not do so. In this context, and after years of denial of Russia’s noncompliance, the US decided has to withdraw from the treaty, raising the spectre of a return to the nuclear standoff of the Cold War.
European and Asian countries naturally feel threatened by Russia’s recent arms development. Putin presented in March, during his annual speech, Russia’s new weapon capabilities: a new generation of ICBMs with more warheads and greater range, that could carry a payload of 200 tons and with the latest technology to counter missile defence. In addition, Russia has been developing hypersonic missiles and vehicles. As for the US, the military budget decided by Trump in August amounts to 716 million dollars, one of the highest ever. As of yet, Trump appears to be taking the bait and has pushed for a comprehensive overhaul of the US nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, China is concentrating on developing a new generation of hypersonic vehicles. Fears are further heightened by the looming expiration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) which is due for renewal in 2021. If this does not occur, all limitations on the development of nuclear warheads would be removed. This looming crisis is likely to be the next big challenge for US-Russia relations. The possibility of a new Cold War seems more than ever actual.
Hugo Tuckett – GPRIS Staff Writer
One of the major geopolitical threats facing the world for 2019 is the security issues and political instability emerging in Central Africa. In recent months the region has been rocked by growing drug trafficking and ongoing uncertainty related to the disputed Congolese elections.
In a recent UN Security Council briefing, alarming new trends in drug trafficking in West and Central Africa were revealed to have disruptive and destabilizing effects on governance, security and economic growth. To highlight this trend, 87 percent of all pharmaceutical opiates seized globally now emerge from this region of the world, with methamphetamine seizures having almost reached the same levels of cocaine. Importantly, the brief pointed to strong linkages between drug trafficking and armed groups, an issue the Security Council has acknowledged before, with many crime related security threats including arms trafficking and maritime piracy emerging.
Within Central Africa, DR Congo emerges as a particularly central geopolitical issue given global reliance on its natural resources and the ongoing political instability. The nation contains an estimated 50 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt – an essential ingredient in the production of batteries that power electrical vehicles and mobile phones. Furthermore, since independence in 1960, the nation has never experienced a peaceful transition of power between rulers – this has included a near 33-year dictatorship by army chief Mobotu Sese Seko. Following the recent Presidential election, there has been growing domestic pressure due to what some suggest amounts to an ‘electoral coup’ given the surprise of the victor in the wake of pre-election polling. The political instability this has so far – and will continue to – cause, will undoubtedly have global ramifications given growing reliance on the valuable resources the nation contains.
In sum, Central Africa poses an array of threats from region wide issues related to drug trafficking through to nation specific affairs. These challenges pose a significant number of obstacles to overcome, especially given increasing reliance on cobalt as part of global efforts to reduce reliance on oil and gas to tackle climate change.
Colombe de Grandmaison – GPRIS Staff Writer
At a time when we keep hearing about climate change, it is essential regard it not only as a scientific problem, but as a global security issue as well. This phenomenon acts as an ‘amplifier of risks’ around the world, as the growing world population is competing for declining resources. Forced migration, food insecurity and the failure of governments to provide assistance to their population makes these populations more susceptible to extremism, social and political unrest, hence destabilising entire regions.
The 2011 Arab Spring is an early example of such a case, as it was in part caused by population movements due to drought and other climate-related conditions. Furthermore, the threat posed by terrorist and insurgent groups is growing in response to climate change in some regions of the world. However, the last few months of 2018 showed us how developed countries are also at risk of growing insecurity related to climate change. The gilets jaunes crisis in France indeed began as protests against the carbon tax put in place by the government as a measure to further France’s ecological transition. Therefore, even if some changes are inevitable, we have a responsibility to prepare for the upcoming ‘climate shocks’. As Sherri Goodman, from the Center for Climate and Security, argues, with the right political will, we should be able to at least become more resilient to these changes.